Former Ald. Will Burns fined $5,000 in ethics settlement
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Former Ald. Will Burns (4th), a close ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, agreed Friday to pay a $5,000 fine in a settlement tied to accusations that he violated the revolving-door provision of Chicago’s ethics ordinance while holding a top job with Airbnb.
Within one year of his last day in office, in apparent violation of the one-year lobbying ban, Burns acknowledged having directly contacted Emanuel’s then-political and government affairs director Mike Rendina regarding City Council negotiations on the hotly debated home-sharing ordinance.
During that same period, Burns participated in “several phone calls between the city and Airbnb,” even though he was “not identified as being present and listening to the call,” according to the settlement agreement released Friday by the Chicago Board of Ethics.
“While the calls were on mute, respondent [Burns] discussed with Airbnb staff what to say to the city during the calls about the short-term rental ordinance,” the agreement states.
During an interview with Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s office, Burns told investigators, “I think the idea was that I could listen in and offer advice to the folks who were active participants on the call.”
Burns also acknowledged having appeared on the WTTW-TV program “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the short-term rental ordinance along with two former City Council colleagues who ultimately voted in favor of the ordinance.
The joint television appearance was an attempt “to influence the terms of the pending ordinance,” according to the settlement agreement.
At no time did Burns “seek advice from the Board of Ethics” on whether any of his actions would “constitute lobbying, in violation” of the “post-employment restrictions” of the ethics ordinance.
For all of those transgressions, first investigated by Ferguson, Burns has agreed to pay a $5,000 fine.
Burns, who no longer works for Airbnb, could not be reached.
In an emailed statement, Airbnb spokesman Ben Breit said the home-sharing giant “takes its ethical and compliance obligations very seriously” and has been been “fully cooperative” with the city investigation.
“We look forward to working with the Board of Ethics to resolve the matter,” Breit said.
Reid Schar, a partner at the law firm of Jenner & Block representing Burns, said in a statement, “As the settlement makes clear, Mr. Burns believes he acted in a good faith manner and in compliance with all relevant rules and regulations related to the passage of the short-term rental ordinance. Mr. Burns fully cooperated with the Board of Ethics review and is pleased the matter is concluded.”
The transgressions outlined in the settlement agreement run contrary to the promise Burns made at his last City Council meeting at a time when eyebrows were raised about the potential conflict between his old and new jobs.
“I’m going to obey all applicable laws and regulations. I’m the point-person on ethics,” Burns said on that day.
“There’s a year period where I cannot register as a lobbyist for the city. I cannot do that. Whatever the law says is what I’m going to abide by.”
Burns helped Emanuel improve his South Side ground game on the way to capturing nearly 58 percent of the black vote in the April 7, 2015, runoff against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Emanuel rewarded Burns for his loyalty by making him chairman of the City Council’s $205,609-a-year Education Committee, even though more senior aldermen thought they deserved it more.
Burns joined Airbnb on Feb. 29, 2016, at a time when the home-sharing giant was facing city regulation that included Emanuel’s proposal to slap a 2 percent surcharge on the booking of any shared housing unit, bed-and-breakfast or vacation rental.
The City Council’s 43-to-7 vote to regulate the burgeoning home-sharing industry followed months of contentious debate on how to balance the interests of Airbnb hosts, who are thrilled with the extra income from booking their spare rooms, with the concerns of neighbors, who are sometimes dismayed by the rowdy antics of some short-term renters.
To appease aldermen whose wards have been overrun by home-sharing, the mayor allowed residents of individual voting precincts to “go dry” and ban Airbnb and its competitors from residential neighborhoods, using a petition process similar to the one used to block bars and liquor stores.
Prior to the final vote, Emanuel backed off his threat to hold Airbnb responsible for policing its home-sharing hosts to avoid the threat of a federal lawsuit.
Instead, the ordinance imposed $60-per-unit fee to generate more than $200,000 a year for enforcement of the regulations. That’s in addition to a 4 percent surcharge on Airbnb and other home-sharing bookings and a $10,000 annual license for each of the web-based companies.
The ordinance also mandates bi-weekly registration reports to the city, a 24-hour hotline and a requirement that Airbnb develop a plan to address “quality-of-life concerns” that includes “removal of problem units” from the company’s home-sharing platform.